Liquid pleasure

London's open-air pools were once a modernist dream, and are as popular as ever

It takes 114 strokes of front crawl to swim from one end to the other. Through tinted goggles, the intense blueness seems more subtropical than south London, but, pausing for breath at the shallow end, beyond the roar of the fountain, one can just make out the rumble of the London-to-Brighton line.

Tooting Bec Lido, at 90 metres long and 30 metres wide, is the biggest outdoor pool in Bri tain, supposedly the second largest in Europe, and one of London's summer treasures. On one's arrival, the scene never fails to raise lift the spirits - the huge rectangle of blue, the impassive lifeguards gazing down from their high chairs, the bright red, yellow and green changing huts along either side of the pool. Below the waterline you enter another world, seemingly without end, uninterrupted by lanes or tiles, with only two black stripes giving the game away. As you move into deeper water, the bottom of the pool becomes speckled with dust and sand like the seabed, and far away you glimpse a school of giant squid and a seahorse, which in time morph into a group of teenagers clinging to the wall of the deep end.

The unheated water takes a bit of getting used to, but its uncompromising chill is part of the attraction. On a hot day, there is little better than stretching out beside this Victorian behemoth with a novel and a picnic, once in a while submitting oneself to the exquisite shock of immersion.

While the essence of indoor pools is chlorinated enclosure, lidos are all about escapism. Their heyday was between the wars, a time when the competing diversions of colour television, package holidays and Fitness First were yet to be discovered. Open-air swimming became a weapon in improving public health and a sign of municipal pride, and nowhere was it more enthusiastically pursued than London. The story is set out magisterially in Janet Smith's 2005 book Liquid Assets. Operating between 1889 and 1965, the London County Council - predecessor to the Greater London Council - oversaw the development of 60 open-air pools by the early 1950s. One of the main instigators was Herbert Morrison, LCC chairman between 1934 and 1940, who promised to turn London into a "city of lidos" where no one would have to travel more than a mile and a half to find his or her nearest pool.

Although the dream was never realised, his legacy is still impressive. The big cities of northern England can no longer count a single lido between them, but London, despite regular closures in the 1970s and 1980s, has nine, in add ition to the ponds of Hampstead Heath and the Serpentine. With one derelict lido having reopened last autumn in the East End of London and another returning two years from now to Uxbridge, in the west, the tide appears to be turning in favour of open-air pools. On 2 July, Brockwell Park Lido also reopened its doors after a major refit to celebrate its 70th birthday.

London Fields is the other new kid on the block, enjoying its first summer season after 20 years lying derelict. It is an unprecedented comeback and Hackney Council is to be praised for rewriting the script on open-air pools. But although a unique addition (it will be London's only heated 50-metre lido), the pool is something of a dis appointment. All automatic doors, sterile reception, officious signage and safety bars, and rather narrow in size, it evokes the leisure centre rather than the lido. The ethos is summed up by a notice on its website warning that picnics are prohibited. Perhaps it will come into its own in the winter, though. Much-vaunted plans for an inflatable bubble to enclose the pool seem to have been dropped. Instead, a blue tarpaulin roof will be unwound overhead, and thus the vital feeling of being outdoors will be preserved. On a dark December night, with a gale ripping across east London from Siberia, entering the heated water will seem both cosy and intrepid.

When it comes to design, most commentators revere the modernist lines of Saltdean Lido, on the outskirts of Brighton, but really this is one for the photographers. In the flesh, as it were, the building is rather banal and the pool, now unpardonably sliced into two, appears puny. For my money, it is hard to beat the geometrical solemnity of the 60-metre Parliament Hill Fields Lido by Hampstead Heath. It is technologically unique, having been fitted with a new steel lining in 2005, and the water has a silver-green hue that responds intriguingly to the light as you swim up and down. It's where Alastair Campbell trained for his triathlon, though the day I visited the only whiff of new Labour was the potential threat of Asbos for a group of exuberant teenagers.

Brockwell Park Lido opened a year before Parliament Hill Fields, and has a similarly symmetrical design. If Tooting is one for the hearties - impressive, but rather puritanical - Brockwell, with its Rastafarian announcer on the public address system, its lush Virginia creeper, its well-stocked bar and its tolerance of smoking in various forms, was the pool with the most hedonistic and socially mixed crowd.

I hope that the atmosphere survives the make over, if not the smoking ban. The pool reopened on the Monday at 6.45am sharp after the refurbishment and redevelopment, commissioned in 2003 and carried out by the architects Pollard Thomas Edwards. The idea is to preserve the listed building but provide the lido with a steady income stream all year round from yoga lessons, t'ai chi and children's music and drama classes.

At the pool's 70th birthday party, I will be raising a glass to Herbert Morrison. One wonders if, in 2077, when foreign holidays, private pools and air conditioning will be carbon crimes, Londoners will be toasting Sir Ken Livingstone for his swimming legacy. So far, preparations for the 2012 Olympics seem to be doing more harm than good to London's swimming facilities. What most of us crave is not a competition-standard pool, but somewhere local, with its own distinct identity and enough room to swim at your own pace, where you can cool off on a hot day. How about a new lido, Ken?

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The new terror

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.